“Then they will deliver you up to be afflicted and will kill you. And you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.”
Luke is more descriptive in his record. Before the finality of “these things”—the destruction of Jerusalem —he wrote,
“They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake” (Lk 21:12).
The early Christians would be persecuted in their efforts to live and preach the gospel (Mt 10:17). Because of His mention of “synagogues,” Jesus was certainly talking about the persecution of the early disciples by Jewish religious leaders. This is exactly what happened in the early missions of the disciples. There are a number of accounts in the document of Acts that detail the Jews persecution of the early disciples as they went forth to preach the gospel (See Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-40; 8:3,4; 12:1-5; 16:23; 21:33-40; 24:23-27; 28:30).
If the gospel were true, then it meant the end of Israel as a special people in a covenant relationship with God. The Jews knew enough about the teaching of Christians to realize this. If the gospel were true, then Jesus was the only Messiah that God would send (See At 4:12). An opportunity to consolidate the Jews around the hope of a coming messiah that was yet in the future was hopeless. In fact, according to Josephus, during the final days of the fall of Jerusalem different individuals withdrew into the temple and tried to give the people hope by rallying them around themselves as the messiah. But all was to no avail.
It is worthy of note that Mark recorded that this discourse was delivered privately to Peter, James, John and Andrew (Mk 13:3). James would be the first apostle to be martyred (At 12:1-5). Peter and the others would suffer extensively at the hands of the persecuting Jews in the years to come. John, James’ brother, would possibly have been the last apostle to die after being exiled by Rome to the island of Patmos (Rv 1:9).
All the disciples were hated by the persecuting Jews because what the Christians believed meant the end of Israel. They were hated because of the disciples’ preaching that Jesus was the Messiah and that there were no more messiahs to come. If Jesus were the only Messiah, then the nationalistic Jews had no future messiah around whom they could rally the people against Rome.
Unfortunately, the hate of the nationalistic Jews would not match that which would later be heaped upon Christians by the end of the first century. Rome would eventually unleash its state persecution against the disciples when the Roman state charged that Christians were also insurrections because they would not confess Caesar as lord.
When Nero was Caesar at the beginning of the 60s, he launched in Rome a personal vendetta against those who had submitted to the Lord Jesus only. But this was only the beginning of Roman persecution against Christians. The personal vendetta of Nero eventually grew into state persecution by the end of the first century. This “hate” had been spoken before by the Lord.
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn 15:18,19; see Jn 10:17-19; At 3:4; 7:59; 12:2; 16:23; 18:12; 24:26; 28:22).
Persecution of the early Christians would become so prevalent that the early evangelists exhorted and comforted the newly established disciples with the teaching that they would suffer for their faith. Paul wrote to Timothy during these years of turmoil, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tm 3:12). Paul and Barnabas strengthened and exhorted the disciples by saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (At 14:22).
The religious world was hostile to Christianity because the gospel nullified the very foundation upon which self-sanctifying religion is based. Since the world is full of religion, then the full strength of misguided religionists will launch all sorts of persecution against those who preach the gospel of God’s grace.
Jesus explained the reason why religious people would do such to those who seek to live according to the gospel message that only in Jesus one can be reconciled to God.
“These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me“ (Jn 16:1-3).
A. The first wave of persecution:
There were two forces that led in the persecution of the early Christians in the first century. The first was Jewish persecution that was instigated by self-righteous religionists as Saul before his obedience to the gospel (At 9:1-3). This persecution eventually extended throughout many cities of the Roman Empire. As a note of explanation, Saul was a part of the religion of the Jews (See Gl 1:13,14). And as a religionist, he viewed Christianity as a sect of people who denied the foundation upon which the Jews’ religion was founded.
Religion exists because it is inherently built upon the foundation of religious traditions that identify each unique religion (See Mk 7:1-9). Religion is a system of faith whereby the adherents seek to sanctify themselves of sin through the performance of certain rites and rituals that identify each particular religion.
Gospel, on the other hand, is defined in one statement that makes the gospel totally contrary to that which identifies religion: Christians “are not under law, but under grace” (Rm 6:14). The gospel of grace, therefore, sets one free from religion (See Gl 5:1). And since gospel sets one free from religion, those who are the leaders of any particular religion set themselves against those who preach the gospel. This is especially true if the leaders of the religion are fully supported by the adherents of the religion.
Since no one can be justified before God through perfect law-keeping, then religion, which is based on strict adherence to the traditions (laws) of the religion, cannot justify one before God. In the case of the Jews, their strict adherence to the law of God could not justify them before God (See Gl 2:16). Obedience to the many rites and rituals of the Jews’ religion could not atone for one sin. No one through law-keeping could be justified before God because everyone continues to sin (Rm 3:23; 6:23).
In contrast to religion, Christians have been set free from perfect obedience to the assumed rites and rituals of any religion. The justified are set free in their obedience to the gospel of grace. Therefore, that which stirred up the persecution from religionists worldwide was the fact that what identified a religion is totally contrary to the central principle of grace that identifies Christianity. There can never be any harmony between any religion and the gospel. The two are inherently opposed to one another. Religion is essentially man trying to do what Jesus did completely at the cross.
B. The second wave of persecution:
The second wave of persecution that was eventually launched against Christians was carried out by the head of the Roman Empire. Nero initially launched his personal vendetta against Christians in the middle 60s. However, all historical evidence indicates that this persecution was localized in and around Rome, and was terminated when Nero committed suicide. It was not until the reign of Domitian the latter part of the first century that Roman state persecution was launched against Christians throughout the Empire.
In Rome’s early persecutions of Jews, the Roman state made little distinction between Jews of Judaism and Jewish Christians. Jewish Christians were only considered a sect of Judaism. And since Judaism was causing the incessant problems in Palestine, Rome launched reprisals against all Jews, regardless of whether they were Christians.
It is also significant to note from the context of Matthew 24, and the context of John 16:1-3, that persecution would come from those who were religionists, and thus, believed they were serving God by persecuting Christians. Even Rome’s persecution that began the latter part of the first century was instituted by religious leaders of Roman religion.
Persecution of Christians rarely comes from the state alone. It is usually generated by religions within the state that seek to dispel competitive religions. Sometimes, the false religions of men will use the power of the state in order to persecute the true church of God. When a religion uses the state to persecute Christians, then we know that the religion is false.
In any state that is theocratic, the civil and religious laws of the state are one. There is no separation between state and religion. In such a situation, any religion that would arise that is contrary to the established religious laws of the state is considered treason. The early disciples would eventually move into a somewhat theocratic state that Rome seemed to become.
Since Christians would not call Caesar “lord,” they were accused of insurrection, and thus enemies of the state. The book of Revelation would take the early disciples through the onslaught of state persecution. Jesus would not leave the Christians of the second and third centuries without hope of deliverance from Roman state persecution. And because He would not, He called on John to pen the visions of Revelation in order to prepare Christians that they would endure persecution for the next 150 years until Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration in A.D. 311.
[Next in series: July 21]